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The Green Counter-Revolution
Post-modern environmentalism versus modern agronomy
Norman Borlaug might just be the most important person you’ve never heard of. And the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program might just be the most important scientific program you’ve never heard of.
That’s fair enough: the mid 20th century was saturated with amazing scientific characters and projects, all of which live larger in the Western imagination than Borlaug. Oppenheimer and Einstein brought us nukes; Salk cured polio; Wernher von Braun – quite dramatically – first built the Nazi V2 rockets that rained terror on innocent Britons for years, got a total pass from Uncle Sam, and then built ICBMs and the American Saturn V rocket that put man on the moon; the list goes on…
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But at the very same time that the Manhattan Project was lighting up the New Mexican desert with atomic fire in July 1945, Norman Borlaug was conducting a different sort of alchemy just a few hundred miles to the south. In the Yaqui Valley, a coastal plain at the southern edge of the Sonoran desert in Mexico, Borlaug and his team were aggressively breeding new species of high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat.
The Mexican dwarf varieties of wheat they bred there arguably constitute as consequential a technology as the nuclear weaponry of the Manhattan Project, with profound implications for humanity. In the second half of the 20th century, these wheat varieties enabled a radical upward explosion in human welfare, and as Borlaug would argue, created the conditions for unprecedented peace all over the world.
Borlaug’s innovations were complicated, involving many thousands of genetic crosses over decades, but I will try to summarize them.
First: the way that plants inherit disease resistance makes them susceptible to gradual changes in natural pathogens. With a bit of bad genetic luck, any one pathogen could result in a wipeout of the season’s crop. But through a plant breeding technique called genetic backcrossing, Borlaug was able to manifest additional passive genes providing broader disease resistance in single strains of wheat.
Second: in the American imagination, we know wheat as those famed “amber waves of grain” in the song. Well, as it turns out, amber waves of grain are a bit too tall and… wavy… to be useful as a high yield crop. You see, fertilizer makes things grow faster, but if grain gets too tall and heavy, the stalks will start to collapse under their own weight. So, when you’re using considerable quantities of synthetic nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers in order to increase yields, you literally need shorter wheat so that it doesn’t fall over and start to rot. Enter dwarf wheat, which is stout and sturdy, if a little less aesthetic.
And third: Borlaug’s wheat was more suited to mechanization. Which, though not directly related to the yield per acre of the wheat itself, was a considerable improvement for the lives of the many millions of humans working in agriculture worldwide. As in other industries, even rudimentary agricultural mechanization has liberated many from debilitating manual labor. It has not eliminated agricultural labor but had the effect, as Borlaug described it, of “reduc[ing] drudgery and increas[ing] the efficiency of human energy.”
The results were fantastic, most of all in areas where irrigation is needed in order to grow cereal crops (in a place like Iowa, where Borlaug was born, with fertile topsoil and abundant rainfall, these innovations are less effective on a relative basis than arid Mexico). Mexico went from importing half its wheat crop to being a net exporter of wheat in less than two decades, with six to tenfold yield increases. In India and Pakistan, with hundreds of millions of people (and growing quickly) a coordinated effort to transplant the new wheat varieties from Mexico resulted in yields doubling in just a few seasons.
Today, nearly 100% of global wheat cultivars are descended from those bred by Norman Borlaug in the Mexican desert, which were themselves incredibly diverse, numbering in the thousands. On a numbers basis, Borlaug’s project is one of the most impressive and indeed admirable scientific achievements in history.
In 1970, the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized Borlaug with the Nobel Peace Prize “for having given a well-founded hope - the green revolution.” It was well deserved. But maybe the greatest effect of Borlaug’s green revolution is what didn’t happen in its aftermath, unlike many other revolutions, in fact most of them… famine. By some modern estimates, Borlaug’s wheat saved the lives of a billion people who might have otherwise died of famine (I think that’s exaggerated but it’s certainly a massive number).
That’s nice, isn't it — people having food and not dying? So, I’m sure that nobody claiming to represent the interests of the toiling brown masses worldwide has commandeered an entire country in order to do the opposite of the green revolution and instigate a totally optional food shortage and political crisis based on a preference for organic produce? Oh, god, no…
Green Revolution, Green Terror
In 2022, we are witnessing one of the first serious challenges to the success of the Green Revolution, brought to us by none other than… well, Greens. By “Greens” here I don’t mean agronomists like Borlaug; I mean global environmentalists pushing restrictions on farmers.
This “Green Terror” has recently come to a head in the island nation of Sri Lanka, where its 22 million residents – including 2 million farmers – have suffered immensely due to a fanatical government ban on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Michael Shellenberger has covered the collapse in detail here, as has Ted Nordhaus. I will be brief.
The now former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged in 2019 while he was running for that office that he would enact a ten year transition to all-organic farming – an “incredible transition,” you might call it. In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic did a number on the Sri Lankan economy, namely its tourism industry; that put the country’s government under severe monetary stress due a series of loans from China (a tale as old as time).
In April 2021, a year into the pandemic, Rajapaksa thought it was a good time to speed up that transition he talked about, and the government implemented a total ban on the import and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Ted Nordhaus, writing in Foreign Policy, describes the rapid collapse:
The result was brutal and swift. Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450 million worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.
In September 2021, by which time the country was already in free fall, President Rajakapsa participated virtually in a United Nations “Food Systems Summit.” In his remarks Rajakapsa made a series of claims that have not aged well, to put it mildly. Here’s what he said to them, with my own added emphasis on a few important points.
“The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in global food systems that will only be worsened with climate change. It is therefore essential that all stakeholders work together to transform global food systems to be more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive. Sustainable food systems are part of Sri Lanka’s rich sociocultural and economic heritage. Our more recent past, however, saw increasing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and weedicides that led to adverse health and environmental impacts. My Government took the bold step to restrict imports of these harmful substances earlier this year. However, changing the mindset of farmers long accustomed to using chemical fertiliser has proven challenging. So too has the production of sufficient quantity of organic fertiliser domestically. Sri Lanka welcomes technical assistance and bilateral support in this regard. Fostering organic agriculture is part of a wider programme that includes enhancing market oriented inclusive food value chains to reduce rural poverty. Through such improvements, I am confident Sri Lanka will be able to sustainably transform its food system and ensure greater food security and better nutrition for its people. Sri Lanka appreciates the technical assistance of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme, and the support of other global organisations and scientific bodies in this regard.”
“I am confident Sri Lanka will be able to sustainably transform its food system and ensure greater food security and better nutrition for its people” is certainly one way to say “we did a food shortage because organic better.”
The bottom line is that modern agronomy works. Are there ways to improve it? Are there negative environmental effects that we should address? What about unethical practices by agricultural corporations? Yes on all counts. But at a basic level, criticisms of modern agriculture are only possible in a country saturated with food. It is our material luxury in countries like this one, created by the extreme efficiency of our agricultural practices, that provides some of our most opinionated citizens the requisite free time and sustenance to spend all day complaining about “food systems.”
If it was just liberals growing melons and kale on rooftops in Brooklyn, that would be fine. But unfortunately these same hare-brained ideas about food are now very popular among influential global leaders. Sri Lanka found out the hard way what happens when you put an “inclusive food systems” enthusiast in charge of your national food system.
Agricultural Suicide, Then and Now
In 2003 Samantha Power, who would two decades later become the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), interviewed Ian Smith, the former leader of Rhodesia. A breakaway British colony with the borders of modern Zimbabwe, white-led Rhodesia was a short-lived nation, a fever dream; it was also the most productive agricultural state in Africa, a veritable breadbasket with thousands of white, American-style commercial farmers working on large acreages.
As Power noted, the new government under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe didn’t immediately upset the white-dominated economy in Zimbabwe — they knew it would wreck that country and make it much poorer, very quickly. Accordingly, many white farmers remained (including Smith, who was banned from politics) and in 2000, well over a majority of the white farmers in Zimbabwe had purchased their property after the transition from white rule, a sign of confidence that the government would be reasonable. It wasn’t just white farmers relying on that stability: Zimbabwean wheat and other cereals were integral in the United Nations effort to provide food to the rest of the hungry and growing African continent.
Eventually, Mugabe did decide to implement “land reforms” — translation: murderous land confiscations and property transfers to black Zimbabweans with little or no agronomical chops — and the effects were swift. Power writes of the changes seen in just three years, a far cry from the doubling of yields in countries where Borlaug worked.
“The drop-off in agricultural production is staggering. Maize farming, which yielded more than 1.5 million tons annually before 2000, is [in 2003] expected to generate just 500,000 tons. Wheat production, which stood at 309,000 tons in 2000, will hover at 27,000 tons this year. Tobacco production, too, which at 265,000 tons accounted for nearly a third of the total foreign-currency earnings in 2000, has tumbled, to about 66,000 tons in 2003.”
Mugabe’s agricultural policy was itself an echo of failed policies by other leaders, albeit this time it had a distinct, racially-inflected flavor. Mao’s capricious and idiotic Great Leap Forward, which killed probably over 50 million people in the end, was borne of a Marxist obsession with the proper organization of agricultural labor. And Stalin’s Holodomor, the intentional Ukrainian famine, was inflicted as revenge against kulaks, the most successful peasants. It killed maybe five million. But what all of these disasters had in common is that they were purely optional.
Now, the leaders of Sri Lanka can join that august list of historical leaders to have torn their nations apart in order to forcibly impose their own personal theories of agriculture. Only these leaders aren’t eccentric dictators like Mugabe, or doctrinaire Communists like Stalin and Mao. The now disgraced and displaced leaders of Sri Lanka were supported and even egged on by Wall Street, the World Economic Forum, the United States Government, and a bevy of other global financial and political institutions that wanted to test out a forced agricultural transition and needed a guinea pig.
Do I sound like a raving lunatic? Read for yourself the Sri Lankan leadership bragging about their plans in a WEF publication, a publication that the WEF has since wiped from the Internet... Inspect for yourself the impressive emissions scores given to that nation (do we still call it that in its current state?). As it turns out, no national ESG score is redeemable for a bushel of grain at the BlackRock agricultural commodities cafe.
Borlaug vs. The Urbanites
In his 1970 Nobel lecture, Borlaug takes Western “urbanites” to task for their decadence and detachment from the physical world. I’ll let Borlaug speak for himself, but let’s just say he was on to something.
“…urbanites in the industrialized nations have forgotten the significance of the words they learned as youngsters, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. They know that food comes from the supermarket, but only a few see beyond to the necessary investments, the toil, struggle, and frustrations on the farms and ranches that provide their daily bread. Since the urbanites have lost their contact with the soil, they take food for granted and fail to appreciate the tremendous efficiency of their farmers and ranchers, who, although constituting only five percent of the labor force in a country such as the United States, produce more than enough food for their nation.”
Reflecting on my own country over the course of the pandemic – does food grow right in the UberEats bag? – these words rang scarily true, and this was in 1970! He goes on to describe a more subtle but arguably much worse modern trend: the instinct to attack those that produce and sell food at a profit.
“...urbanites often vociferously criticize their government for attempting to bring into balance the agricultural production of its farmers with the domestic and foreign market demands for farm products, and attempting thereby to provide the consumer an abundant food supply at reasonable cost and also to assure a reasonable return to the farmer and rancher.”
Does this sound familiar? President Biden recently told US gas station owners to “lower the price you are charging at the pump. And do it now!” I won’t beat up on Biden too much, but it is not some dumb coincidence that the green revolution made farmers richer, or that the energy industry that keeps us alive and moving also makes a considerable amount of money for providing that service. Deciding that the “basics” like food and energy shouldn’t be profitable is a certain recipe for a shortage of those basics. It’s called communism and we’ve tried it a few too many times.
Ironically, there’s one specific area of insanity where Borlaug agreed with the detached urbanites. Borlaug of all people came to believe the Malthusian propaganda of the 1960s – that population growth would literally doom mankind – even as his own innovations were rendering those theories moot in real time. In the 1970 Nobel lecture, he warned of what he called the “Population Monster” (the more popular term was “Population Bomb,” from the discredited demographer Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book of the same name).
“The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”
Borlaug was wrong! The Green Revolution was not ephemeral or temporary at all. Agricultural productivity has only improved since 1970, as have human welfare standards. Much of that improvement can be attributed to the tremendous success of the post-Mao government in China, which elevated hundreds of millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty by embracing modern agronomy (and later, markets). Even more importantly, the astounding worldwide amelioration happened concurrently with parabolic population growth, especially in India.
Standards of human welfare and population growth are not at odds with one another.
The Political Impact
The global environmental movement is inviting an agricultural calamity with its ideas about organic farming, “agro-ecology,” and de-industrialized farm labor. The coerced transition to low-yield and laborious organic farming in Sri Lanka – and the subsequent political upheaval in that country – is just a preview of what’s to come. Barring a major course correction, I expect that “Environmentalists Made You Hungry” will be a more and more salient political message in future years, most of all in the developing world. Just as it was in South Asia that the Green Revolution made its biggest positive impact, it is there that anti-modern radicals can do the most damage. But make no mistake: it can happen here, too, as the Dutch are now learning.
With the assumption that international liberals and our present rulers would like to avoid any further disasters – hopefully for altruistic reasons (you know, famine) but possibly only for cynical political reasons (their own power) – I would now like to offer some free advice to them: Modern agronomy and crop science won. Take the win!
It has become a cliche to say that “Mussolini made the trains run on time” – i.e. that Italians otherwise not predisposed to fascism were okay with it because of certain improvements to daily life. In Mussolini’s case, it’s not even true about the trains, but there’s a point somewhere in there: when any political system, democratic or otherwise, ignores physical realities – food being a very important one – it is at risk of upheaval.
Borlaug himself said it best in Oslo. Responding to what he called the “lofty” social justice ambitions of the International Labor Organization, which had won the previous year’s prize in 1969, Borlaug remarked: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
Influential liberals and leftists today spend a considerable amount of time warning about the onset of “fascism,” by which they usually just mean non-left populism of one sort or another. To those liberals who are almost universally unable to figure out why distressed people all over the world are willing to support unsavory political movements when left-wing governments do odd or even highly destructive things like what was done to Sri Lanka, I address myself:
If you want to avoid a politics of “blood and soil”, you would do well not to attack nitrogen and soil. Which is to say, if something works fantastically well, like modern agriculture, and global human health depends on it… let it be.
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